Sunday, February 23, 2014

Introduction to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (PESC) was originally published by Max Weber in two parts in 1904-05.  Weber later revised and re-published the book in 1920 as part of a more comparative study, Economic Ethics of the World Religions. 

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is not only a theory of the rise of capitalism.   As Weber says it is more about the role of religion in economic life, which addresses only one part of the rise of capitalism. 

One very important aspect in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is its ideal (rather than material) perception. Weber is often opposed to Karl Marx in this regard. Marx argued that social existence shapes consciousness, not vice versa.  Weber's position is more complex and bilateral:
He holds that ideas and perceptions play neither a wholly autonomous nor a purely passive role in history and society.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Weber wrote:   

"Not ideas, but material and ideal interests, directly govern men's conduct.  Yet very frequently the "world images" that have been created by ideas have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest".

The central ideas posed by Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism have to do with several important issues.

One aspect of the book has to do with Weber's notion of rationality and rationalization. Weber sees capitalism has a part of a wider strive to organize society and economic life in a rational manner. Protestantism comes into the picture as a parallel attempt in modernity to organize religious life in a rational manner.  

Another aspect of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is question of capitalism's justification. Weber finds the answer to this question in the three-sided relationship between modern capitalism (a system for organizing economic life), the spirit of capitalism (the set of ideas that grant modern capitalism justification), and the Protestant Ethic (a religious attitude toward this world and the next upon which the spirit of capitalism is based).

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